Approach the chamber, and destroy your sight With a new Gorgon--Do not bid me speak; See, and then speak yourselves. --Shakspeare.
The little run, which supplied the family of the squatter with water, and nourished the trees and bushes that grew near the base of the rocky eminence, took its rise at no great distance from the latter, in a small thicket of cotton-wood and vines. Hither, then, the trapper directed the flight, as to the place affording the only available cover in so pressing an emergency. It will be remembered, that the sagacity of the old man, which, from long practice in similar scenes, amounted nearly to an instinct in all cases of sudden danger, had first induced him to take this course, as it placed the hill between them and the approaching party. Favoured by this circumstance, he succeeded in reaching the bushes in sufficient time and Paul Hover had just hurried the breathless Ellen into the tangled bush, as Ishmael gained the summit of the rock, in the manner already described, where he stood like a man momentarily bereft of sense, gazing at the confusion which had been created among his chattels, or at his gagged and bound children, who had been safely bestowed, by the forethought of the bee-hunter, under the cover of a bark roof, in a sort of irregular pile. A long rifle would have thrown a bullet from the height, on which the squatter now stood, into the very cover where the fugitives, who had wrought all this mischief, were clustered.
The trapper was the first to speak, as the man on whose intelligence and experience they all depended for counsel, after running his eye over the different individuals who gathered about him, in order to see that none were missing.
"Ah! natur' is natur', and has done its work!" he said, nodding to the exulting Paul, with a smile of approbation. "I thought it would be hard for those, who had so often met in fair and foul, by starlight and under the clouded moon, to part at last in anger. Now is there little time to lose in talk, and every thing to gain by industry! It cannot be long afore some of yonder brood will be nosing along the
'arth for our trail, and should they find it, as find it they surely will, and should they push us to a stand on our courage, the dispute must be settled with the rifle; which may He in heaven forbid! Captain, can you lead us to the place where any of your warriors lie? --For the stout sons of the squatter will make a manly brush of it, or I am but little of a judge in warlike dispositions!"
"The place of rendezvous is many leagues from this, on the banks of La Platte."
"It is bad--it is bad. If fighting is to be done, it is always wise to enter on it on equal terms. But what has one so near his time to do with ill-blood and hot-blood at his heart! Listen to what a grey head and some experience have to offer, and then if any among you can point out a wiser fashion for a retreat, we can just follow his design, and forget that I have spoken. This thicket stretches for near a mile as it may be slanting from the rock, and leads towards the sunset instead of the settlements."
"Enough, enough," cried Middleton, too impatient to wait until the deliberative and perhaps loquacious old man could end his minute explanation. "Time is too precious for words. Let us fly."
The trapper made a gesture of compliance, and turning in his tracks, he led Asinus across the trembling earth of the swale, and quickly emerged on the hard ground, on the side opposite to the encampment of the squatter.
"If old Ishmael gets a squint at that highway through the brush," cried Paul, casting, as he left the place, a hasty glance at the broad trail the party had made through the thicket, "he'll need no finger- board to tell him which way his road lies. But let him follow! I know the vagabond would gladly cross his breed with a little honest blood, but if any son of his ever gets to be the husband of--"
"Hush, Paul, hush," said the terrified young woman, who leaned on his arm for support; "your voice might be heard."
The bee-hunter was silent, though he did not cease to cast ominous looks behind him, as they flew along the edge of the run, which sufficiently betrayed the belligerent condition of his mind. As each one was busy for himself, but a few minutes elapsed before the party rose a swell of the prairie, and descending without a moment's delay on the opposite side, they were at once removed from every danger of being seen by the sons of Ishmael, unless the pursuers should happen to fall upon their trail. The old man now profited by the formation of the land to take another direction, with a view to elude pursuit, as a vessel changes her course in fogs and darkness, to escape from the vigilance of her enemies.
Two hours, passed in the utmost diligence, enabled them to make a half circuit around the rock, and to reach a point that was exactly opposite to the original direction of their flight. To most of the fugitives their situation was as entirely unknown as is that of a ship in the middle of the ocean to the uninstructed voyager: but the old man proceeded at every turn, and through every bottom, with a decision that inspired his followers with confidence, as it spoke favourably of his own knowledge of the localities. His hound, stopping now and then to catch the expression of his eye, had preceded the trapper throughout the whole distance, with as much certainty as though a previous and intelligible communion between them had established the route by which they were to proceed. But, at the expiration of the time just named, the dog suddenly came to a stand, and then seating himself on the prairie, he snuffed the air a moment, and began a low and piteous whining.
"Ay--pup--ay. I know the spot--I know the spot, and reason there is to remember it well!" said the old man, stopping by the side of his uneasy associate, until those who followed had time to come up. "Now, yonder, is a thicket before us," he continued, pointing forward, "where we may lie till tall trees grow on these naked fields, afore any of the squatter's kin will venture to molest us."
"This is the spot, where the body of the dead man lay!" cried Middleton, examining the place with an eye that revolted at the recollection.
"The very same. But whether his friends have put him in the bosom of the ground or not, remains to be seen. The hound knows the scent, but seems to be a little at a loss, too. It is therefore necessary that you advance, friend bee-hunter, to examine, while I tarry to keep the dogs from complaining in too loud a voice."
"I!" exclaimed Paul, thrusting his hand into his shaggy locks, like one who thought it prudent to hesitate before he undertook so formidable an adventure; "now, heark'ee, old trapper; I've stood in my thinnest cottons in the midst of many a swarm that has lost its queen- bee, without winking, and let me tell you, the man who can do that, is not likely to fear any living son of skirting Ishmael; but as to meddling with dead men's bones, why it is neither my calling nor my inclination; so, after thanking you for the favour of your choice, as they say, when they make a man a corporal in Kentucky, I decline serving."
The old man turned a disappointed look towards Middleton, who was too much occupied in solacing Inez to observe his embarrassment, which was, however, suddenly relieved from a quarter, whence, from previous circumstances, there was little reason to expect such a demonstration of fortitude.
Doctor Battius had rendered himself a little remarkable throughout the whole of the preceding retreat, for the exceeding diligence with which he had laboured to effect that desirable object. So very conspicuous was his zeal, indeed, as to have entirely gotten the better of all his ordinary predilections. The worthy naturalist belonged to that species of discoverers, who make the worst possible travelling companions to a man who has reason to be in a hurry. No stone, no bush, no plant is ever suffered to escape the examination of their vigilant eyes, and thunder may mutter, and rain fall, without disturbing the abstraction of their reveries. Not so, however, with the disciple of Linnaeus, during the momentous period that it remained a mooted point at the tribunal of his better judgment, whether the stout descendants of the squatter were not likely to dispute his right to traverse the prairie in freedom. The highest blooded and best trained hound, with his game in view, could not have run with an eye more riveted than that with which the Doctor had pursued his curvilinear course. It was perhaps lucky for his fortitude that he was ignorant of the artifice of the trapper in leading them around the citadel of Ishmael, and that he had imbibed the soothing impression that every inch of prairie he traversed was just so much added to the distance between his own person and the detested rock. Notwithstanding the momentary shock he certainly experienced, when he discovered this error, he now boldly volunteered to enter the thicket in which there was some reason to believe the body of the murdered Asa still lay. Perhaps the naturalist was urged to show his spirit, on this occasion, by some secret consciousness that his excessive industry in the retreat might be liable to misconstruction; and it is certain that, whatever might be his peculiar notions of danger from the quick, his habits and his knowledge had placed him far above the apprehension of suffering harm from any communication with the dead.
"If there is any service to be performed, which requires the perfect command of the nervous system," said the man of science, with a look that was slightly blustering, "you have only to give a direction to his intellectual faculties, and here stands one on whose physical powers you may depend."
"The man is given to speak in parables," muttered the single-minded trapper; "but I conclude there is always some meaning hidden in his words, though it is as hard to find sense in his speeches, as to discover three eagles on the same tree. It will be wise, friend, to make a cover, lest the sons of the squatter should be out skirting on our trail, and, as you well know, there is some reason to fear yonder thicket contains a sight that may horrify a woman's mind. Are you man enough to look death in the face; or shall I run the risk of the hounds raising an outcry, and go in myself? You see the pup is willing to run with an open mouth, already."
"Am I man enough! Venerable trapper, our communications have a recent origin, or thy interrogatory might have a tendency to embroil us in angry disputation. Am I man enough! I claim to be of the class, mammalia; order, primates; genus, homo! Such are my physical attributes; of my moral properties, let posterity speak; it becomes me to be mute."
"Physic may do for such as relish it; to my taste and judgment it is neither palatable nor healthy; but morals never did harm to any living mortal, be it that he was a sojourner in the forest, or a dweller in the midst of glazed windows and smoking chimneys. It is only a few hard words that divide us, friend; for I am of an opinion that, with use and freedom, we should come to understand one another, and mainly settle down into the same judgments of mankind, and of the ways of world. Quiet, Hector, quiet; what ruffles your temper, pup; is it not used to the scent of human blood?"
The Doctor bestowed a gracious but commiserating smile on the philosopher of nature, as he retrograded a step or two from the place whither he had been impelled by his excess of spirit, in order to reply with less expenditure of breath, and with a greater freedom of air and attitude.
"A homo is certainly a homo," he said, stretching forth an arm in an argumentative manner; "so far as the animal functions extend, there are the connecting links of harmony, order, conformity, and design, between the whole genus; but there the resemblance ends. Man may be degraded to the very margin of the line which separates him from the brute, by ignorance; or he may be elevated to a communion with the great Master-spirit of all, by knowledge; nay, I know not, if time and opportunity were given him, but he might become the master of all learning, and consequently equal to the great moving principle."
The old man, who stood leaning on his rifle in a thoughtful attitude, shook his head, as he answered with a native steadiness, that entirely eclipsed the imposing air which his antagonist had seen fit to assume--
"This is neither more nor less than mortal wickedness! Here have I been a dweller on the earth for four-score and six changes of the seasons, and all that time have I look'd at the growing and the dying trees, and yet do I not know the reasons why the bud starts under the summer sun, or the leaf falls when it is pinch'd by the frosts. Your l'arning, though it is man's boast, is folly in the eyes of Him, who sits in the clouds, and looks down, in sorrow, at the pride and vanity of his creatur's. Many is the hour that I've passed, lying in the shades of the woods, or stretch'd upon the hills of these open fields, looking up into the blue skies, where I could fancy the Great One had taken his stand, and was solemnising on the waywardness of man and brute, below, as I myself had often look'd at the ants tumbling over each other in their eagerness, though in a way and a fashion more suited to His mightiness and power. Knowledge! It is his plaything. Say, you who think it so easy to climb into the judgment-seat above, can you tell me any thing of the beginning and the end? Nay, you're a dealer in ailings and cures: what is life, and what is death? Why does the eagle live so long, and why is the time of the butterfly so short? Tell me a simpler thing: why is this hound so uneasy, while you, who have passed your days in looking into books, can see no reason to be disturbed?"
The Doctor, who had been a little astounded by the dignity and energy of the old man, drew a long breath, like a sullen wrestler who is just released from the throttling grasp of his antagonist, and seized on the opportunity of the pause to reply--
"It is his instinct."
"And what is the gift of instinct?"
"An inferior gradation of reason. A sort of mysterious combination of thought and matter."
"And what is that which you call thought?"
"Venerable venator, this is a method of reasoning which sets at nought the uses of definitions, and such as I do assure you is not at all tolerated in the schools."
"Then is there more cunning in your schools than I had thought, for it is a certain method of showing them their vanity," returned the trapper, suddenly abandoning a discussion, from which the naturalist was just beginning to anticipate great delight, by turning to his dog, whose restlessness he attempted to appease by playing with his ears. "This is foolish, Hector; more like an untrained pup than a sensible hound; one who has got his education by hard experience, and not by nosing over the trails of other dogs, as a boy in the settlements follows on the track of his masters, be it right or be it wrong. Well, friend; you who can do so much, are you equal to looking into the thicket? or must I go in myself?"
The Doctor again assumed his air of resolution, and, without further parlance, proceeded to do as desired. The dogs were so far restrained, by the remonstrances of the old man, as to confine their noise to low but often-repeated whinings. When they saw the naturalist advance, the pup, however, broke through all restraint, and made a swift circuit around his person, scenting the earth as he proceeded, and then, returning to his companion, he howled aloud.
"The squatter and his brood have left a strong scent on the earth," said the old man, watching as he spoke for some signal from his learned pioneer to follow; "I hope yonder school-bred man knows enough to remember the errand on which I have sent him."
Doctor Battius had already disappeared in the bushes and the trapper was beginning to betray additional evidences of impatience, when the person of the former was seen retiring from the thicket backwards, with his face fastened on the place he had just left, as if his look was bound in the thraldom of some charm.
"Here is something skeery, by the wildness of the creatur's countenance!" exclaimed the old man relinquishing his hold of Hector, and moving stoutly to the side of the totally unconscious naturalist. "How is it, friend; have you found a new leaf in your book of wisdom?"
"It is a basilisk!" muttered the Doctor, whose altered visage betrayed the utter confusion which beset his faculties. "An animal of the order, serpens. I had thought its attributes were fabulous, but mighty nature is equal to all that man can imagine!"
"What is't? what is't? The snakes of the prairies are harmless, unless it be now and then an angered rattler and he always gives you notice with his tail, afore he works his mischief with his fangs. Lord, Lord, what a humbling thing is fear! Here is one who in common delivers words too big for a humble mouth to hold, so much beside himself, that his voice is as shrill as the whistle of the whip-poor-will! Courage! --what is it, man?--what is it?"
"A prodigy! a lusus naturae! a monster, that nature has delighted to form, in order to exhibit her power! Never before have I witnessed such an utter confusion in her laws, or a specimen that so completely bids defiance to the distinctions of class and genera. Let me record its appearance," fumbling for his tablets with hands that trembled too much to perform their office, "while time and opportunity are allowed --eyes, enthralling; colour, various, complex, and profound--"
"One would think the man was craz'd, with his enthralling looks and pieball'd colours!" interrupted the discontented trapper, who began to grow a little uneasy that his party was all this time neglecting to seek the protection of some cover. "If there is a reptile in the brush, show me the creatur', and should it refuse to depart peaceably, why there must be a quarrel for the possession of the place."
"There!" said the Doctor, pointing into a dense mass of the thicket, to a spot within fifty feet of that where they both stood. The trapper turned his look, with perfect composure, in the required direction, but the instant his practised glance met the object which had so utterly upset the philosophy of the naturalist, he gave a start himself, threw his rifle rapidly forward, and as instantly recovered it, as if a second flash of thought convinced him he was wrong. Neither the instinctive movement, nor the sudden recollection, was without a sufficient object. At the very margin of the thicket, and in absolute contact with the earth, lay an animate ball, that might easily, by the singularity and fierceness of its aspect, have justified the disturbed condition of the naturalist's mind. It were difficult to describe the shape or colours of this extraordinary substance, except to say, in general terms, that it was nearly spherical, and exhibited all the hues of the rainbow, intermingled without reference to harmony, and without any very ostensible design. The predominant hues were a black and a bright vermilion. With these, however, the several tints of white, yellow, and crimson, were strangely and wildly blended. Had this been all, it would have been difficult to have pronounced that the object was possessed of life, for it lay motionless as any stone; but a pair of dark, glaring, and moving eyeballs which watched with jealousy the smallest movement of the trapper and his companion, sufficiently established the important fact of its possessing vitality.
"Your reptile is a scouter, or I'm no judge of Indian paints and Indian deviltries!" muttered the old man, dropping the butt of his weapon to the ground, and gazing with a steady eye at the frightful object, as he leaned on its barrel, in an attitude of great composure. "He wants to face us out of sight and reason, and make us think the head of a red-skin is a stone covered with the autumn leaf; or he has some other devilish artifice in his mind!"
"Is the animal human?" demanded the Doctor, "of the genus homo? I had fancied it a non-descript."
"It's as human, and as mortal too, as a warrior of these prairies is ever known to be. I have seen the time when a red-skin would have shown a foolish daring to peep out of his ambushment in that fashion on a hunter I could name, but who is too old now, and too near his time, to be any thing better than a miserable trapper. It will be well to speak to the imp, and to let him know he deals with men whose beards are grown. Come forth from your cover, friend," he continued, in the language of the extensive tribes of the Dahcotahs; "there is room on the prairie for another warrior."
The eyes appeared to glare more fiercely than ever, but the mass which, according to the trapper's opinion, was neither more nor less than a human head, shorn, as usual among the warriors of the west, of its hair, still continued without motion, or any other sign of life.
"It is a mistake!" exclaimed the doctor. "The animal is not even of the class, mammalia, much less a man."
"So much for your knowledge!" returned the trapper, laughing with great exultation. "So much for the l'arning of one who has look'd into so many books, that his eyes are not able to tell a moose from a wild- cat! Now my Hector, here, is a dog of education after his fashion, and, though the meanest primmer in the settlements would puzzle his information, you could not cheat the hound in a matter like this. As you think the object no man, you shall see his whole formation, and then let an ignorant old trapper, who never willingly pass'd a day within reach of a spelling-book in his life, know by what name to call it. Mind, I mean no violence; but just to start the devil from his ambushment."
The trapper very deliberately examined the priming of his rifle, taking care to make as great a parade as possible of his hostile intentions, in going through the necessary evolutions with the weapon. When he thought the stranger began to apprehend some danger, he very deliberately presented the piece, and called aloud--
"Now, friend, I am all for peace, or all for war, as you may say. No! well it is no man, as the wiser one, here, says, and there can be no harm in just firing into a bunch of leaves."
The muzzle of the rifle fell as he concluded, and the weapon was gradually settling into a steady, and what would easily have proved a fatal aim, when a tall Indian sprang from beneath that bed of leaves and brush, which he had collected about his person at the approach of the party, and stood upright, uttering the exclamation--